Earth Notes: Petrified Forest Repeat Photography

Oct 31, 2018

Albert Einstein and John Muir were among famous visitors who marveled at the rainbow-colored petrified wood scattered over a lonely corner of northeast Arizona. The photographs they took are now helping tell an important story—petrified wood thievery isn’t as common as previously thought.  

Albert Einstein in Petrified Forest, 1931
Credit Melissa Sevigny

The petrified wood is what’s left of a lush, tropical landscape that existed more than 200 million years ago. As the continents split apart, giant conifer trees were buried beneath river mud and volcanic ash. The trees crystallized into beautiful colors and patterns, studded with quartz and opal.

To protect this fossil wealth, President Theodore Roosevelt declared Petrified Forest a national monument in 1906. The area was upgraded to a national park in the 1960s, after hordes of Route 66 travelers had experienced its wonders.

But rumors soon abounded that Petrified Forest was being stripped of the glittering wood. In 2000, it was named one of the nation’s “most threatened” national parks.

Park paleontologist Bill Parker and archivist Scott Williams wanted to know if the rumors were true. They tracked down 200 photographs dating back to the 1880s. Then they took new photographs of the same spots, including a massive log called “Old Faithful” where Einstein once posed for the camera.

The repeat photography project proved the rumors false. Visitors had barely stirred the fallen logs and fields of petrified wood chips over the last century. Park staff took down the signs that complained of rampant theft, and now they tell a different story—most people who visit this amazing place do the right thing.